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An emotional artist finds release -- yet doesn’t

Times Staff Writer

Who upset the Apple cart?

Nobody’s taking credit for spilling Fiona Apple’s unreleased (and possibly unfinished) third album all over the Internet, but the action has upped the ante in what’s become pop music’s biggest art-versus-commerce dust-up since Wilco versus Reprise Records and Danger Mouse versus the Beatles.

Now Apple’s record company is cracking down, she has clammed up and fans are still manning the barricades.

The New York-bred singer-songwriter whose first two albums, 1997’s “Tidal” and 1999’s “When the Pawn ... ,” made her a commercial and critical success is a perfect centerpiece for this drama. Edgy and vulnerable, mercurial and uncompromising, she’s the heroine of a fervent cult and a classic potential victim of the crass music business.

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Despite her initial impact -- “Tidal” sold nearly 3 million copies and earned her a Grammy for the song “Criminal” -- Apple was a high-maintenance renegade, refusing to play by the record industry’s rules. That earned her ridicule from the mainstream, and intense loyalty from fans who identified with her idealism and emotional openness.

So it’s understandable that there would be high anticipation for her first new music in six years. Trouble is, with both Apple and her label, Sony’s Epic Records, declining interview requests, it’s unclear what really happened to it.

Fans who are protesting with demonstrations at Sony headquarters and petitions at www.freefiona.com and by sending apples to Epic executives say that the singer turned in her album, “Extraordinary Machine,” in May 2003 and that the label decided not to release it because they didn’t think it would sell enough to justify its costs. Sources at the label contend that Apple’s submission was a work-in-progress, not a completed recording.

The matter became an issue when two tracks from the collection appeared on the Internet last year, followed by the entire 11-song album earlier this year. A Seattle radio disc jockey, Andrew Harms, also obtained a copy of the album and began playing it.

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Epic’s only comment has been two vague statements. The first, issued in February, concluded, “Fiona has not yet delivered her next album to Epic, but we join music lovers everywhere in eagerly anticipating her next release.” A shorter statement, released Thursday, said simply: “Epic is continuing to work with Fiona’s management toward the release of this project.”

And for the last couple of weeks the company has been warning websites that have posted the music to remove those files or face legal action. Many have pulled the songs, though disc jockey Harms said Thursday that he is still playing the album on Seattle’s End Radio (107.7 FM) and has heard nothing from the label.

If the saga is cloudy, the music itself is unambiguously potent. One rumor floating through the instant mythology of “Extraordinary Machine” is that Apple herself wasn’t happy with it. But if the album eventually comes out in anything close to the form that could be downloaded from the Internet, it will mark a striking artistic advance for an already formidable musician.

In her first two albums, Apple emerged as a songwriter who could twist the conventions of the confessional lyric into intriguingly distinctive shapes, drawing on a dysfunctional upbringing to bring a rare candor to her scenarios of romantic obsession. The vehemence of her delivery made it seem as if a therapist’s couch must have been part of the studio furnishing.

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Her singing wasn’t what you’d expect from such a waiflike figure -- her voice was authoritative, low, and smoky with jazzy inflections, evoking comparisons to Nina Simone. On “Pawn,” producer Jon Brion’s pop-cabaret instrumental backing was unobtrusive, framing her singing with a flavorful but restrained mix of pop instrumentation and string arrangements.

Since then, Brion has crafted quirky soundtracks for such films as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Punch-Drunk Love” and “I {heart} Huckabees,” and he’s brought some of that cinematic sensibility to his new collaboration with Apple.

In “Not About Love,” the strings are as vivid and dimensional as an animated cartoon character, serving not as a static frame but as a true foil for Fiona, stomping ominously into the Randy Newman-like bridge, then billowing out into an aural ballroom dance.

The scrap-yard symphony of the bouncy “Used to Love Him” also evokes grainy old cartoons, and in its structure and scope the title song suggests a Broadway production number. Underscoring a new search for variety, “Get Him Back” is a ramshackle rocker built on the “Wooly Bully” riff, and “Better Version of Me” is soaked with chimes and carnival-like swirls.

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Apple’s singing is supple, spontaneous and eccentrically personal throughout the 11 songs, and Brion’s more aggressive approach draws out more of her humor, always a crucial if subtle ingredient in her music.

Not that she’s turned all sunny. Through all these stretches, Apple chronicles obsession masterfully, capturing the exhilarating balance of excitement and terror that comes with not being in control. “I think he let me down when he didn’t disappoint me,” she sings in “Get Him Back,” distilling her perverse need to be let down.

And in the six-minute blues/noir epic “Oh Sailor,” she offers what may be her ultimate self-defining verse:

Everything good I deem too good to be true

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Everything else is just a bore

Everything I have to look forward to

Has a pretty painful and very imposing before.

The fans might be chanting “Free Fiona,” but it’s pretty clear from this music that she’s been freed as an artist.

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